Fr. Roger J. Landry
Sisters of Life Visitation Convent, New York, NY
Thursday of the Second Week of Lent
March 5, 2015
Jer 17:5-10, Ps 1, Lk 16:19-31
The homily this morning didn’t record. The following points were attempted in the homily:
- In today’s readings the Church brings us to focus on one of the essential practices of Lent and life, which is almsgiving. Almsgiving is not merely about the concrete external act of giving something or some time to a person in need, but fundamentally about the compassion that gives rise to a desire to do what we can to alleviate others’ material and spiritual sufferings. The word almsgiving comes from the old English aelmesse, which is derived from the Greek eleemosyna, which is the word for mercy, as in Kyrie eleison, “Lord, have mercy.” Almsgiving flows from a merciful heart.
- It’s not enough for us as Christians simply not to do evil to others. We also are called positively to do good, to sacrifice ourselves for others, to go out in search for those in need, to give not only things to those in greater need but give ourselves. But it’s also one of the deepest points about our Lenten prayer and almsgiving. Jesus wants us to love one another as he has loved us first, to become Good Samaritans to others just like he crossed the road all the way from heaven to care for us, not just not harming us but positively helping us. He wants to hunger for the things that God hungers for: to share our bread with the hungry, to shelter the oppressed and the homeless, to clothe the naked when we see them, not to turn our back on our own family members and kin in need, to release those bound unjustly and break the yoke that keeps people oppressed (Is 58, from the Friday after Ash Wednesday). Lent is a time for us to examine not just whether we value these priorities, or wish to do them, but whether we are in fact bearing fruit from a heart full of compassion.
- In the Gospel today, Jesus gives us one of his most powerful parables in which he illustrates to us that it’s not enough just not to harm our neighbor. He wants us to love our neighbor, to give of ourselves for them in need. The Rich Man in the Parable goes to hell not because he did any evil to the poor man, Lazarus, wounded and starving to death at his gate. He didn’t insult him. He didn’t beat him. He didn’t send his dogs to attack him. The Rich Man was sent to hell because when he saw Lazarus at his gate he simply did nothing. He continued to eat his three sumptuous meals a day while Lazarus was dying of starvation and lack of care. Even the pets recognized his suffering such that the dogs were licking his wounds to try to heal them, but the Rich Man had no such compassion.
- The parable illustrates very clearly the Rich Man’s sins of omission and it gets us to ask courageously and sincerely whether we’re committing similar sins. Jesus says that at the end of time, those who with great pain and regret he will wave to his eternal left, will be those who did nothing when they saw people hungry, thirsty, a stranger, naked, ill or in prison (Mt 25:31-46). They’ll all be shocked, similar to the way the Rich Man was shocked in the parable today, and will ask, “When did we see you, Lord, hungry, thirsty, a stranger, naked, ill or in prison and not minister to your needs?” And Jesus says he’ll respond, “As often as you failed to do it to one of the least of my brothers and sisters, you failed to do it to me.” The Rich Man’s problem is not that he failed just that he failed to lift a finger to help poor Lazarus at his gate. His deeper problem was that he failed to care for Jesus starving and wounded at his gate.
- That brings us to the second lesson of today’s Lenten readings, which is perhaps even more powerful than the first. Why didn’t the rich man care? Why didn’t he do act when he so easily could have helped? The reason is because his heart was stony, rather than compassionate. The Rich man was stuffing himself with so much food and pleasure that he could no longer empathize. He was basing his existence on his own desires, on his material securities, rather than on God, on his commandments, on love of God and others. In his plaintive appeals to Abraham to have Lazarus at least go to his brothers to warn them of the consequences of their own sinful omissions because of a similarly hedonistic heart-hardening life, it was clear that he knew that they were ignoring the “Moses and the prophets” just as much as he himself had been doing so before.
- The first reading and the Psalm highlight for us the choice that we have to make, the choice that Lazarus got right and the choice that the Rich Man got wrong. It’s between basing our lives on God or on mammon. About the choice God wants us to make, about the fundamental orientation of our life, God tells us through the Prophet Jeremiah in the first reading, “Blessed is the man who trusts in the Lord, whose hope is the Lord. He is like a tree planted beside the waters that stretches out its roots to the stream: it fears not the heat when it comes, its leaves stay green. In the year of drought it shows no distress, but still bears fruit.” This is the fruitful lifestyle of one who, the Psalm adds, “delights in the law of the Lord and meditates on God’s law day and night.” That is the one who prospers eternally in whatever he does, because the chief fruit of his life is interior, in his relationship with God. Because Lazarus always trusted in the Lord, even while his body was decaying, the leaves of his spiritual tree were unfaded; even while he was physically infamished, spiritually he was bearing fruit even during the drought.
- The Rich Man on the other hand was one who, to quote Jeremiah, was “cursed” because he “trusts in human beings, who seeks his strength in flesh, whose heart turns away from the Lord.” He’s described as a barren bush in the desert,” a “lava waste,” a “salt and empty earth.” To use the image of the Psalm, he’s like the “chaff,” the insubstantial remains of something that once was alive but now has had all the life burned out of it, “that the wind drives away.” At death, it was revealed that all his property, his banquets, his wealth were like chaff, whereas Lazarus’ deep roots in the living water of God were revealed as the real strength of his existence and the source of fruit that lasted into eternity.
- All of this brings us to the choice that faces each of us this Lent: Whether we’re going to seek after what the Rich Man sought and place our faith, hope and love in the things of this world, or whether we’re going to base our life on God, whether we’re going to meditate on his law day and night, whether we’re going to seek to use all the blessings and gifts he’s given us to build up his kingdom by loving his sons and daughters in need all around us or whether we’re going to use them selfishly to build up our kingdom. It’s not enough for us to wish to do good. God wants us actually to choose to do good and to spend our lives loving others. We will never run out of Lazaruses at our gates, especially here in New York City. There will never be a shortage of Lazaruses at Visitation Mission. We will never exhaust the opportunity to care for Jesus in disguise. Lent is meant to help us not to give alms, pray and fast for 40 days but for a lifetime. It’s supposed to bring us back to the basics, and a heart that trusts in God and cares for others is as basic as it gets for Christians.
- At the very end of the Gospel today, the Rich Man begs that Lazarus return to his brothers to warn them of the impending doom unless they change and begin to care for those in need, saying that if someone from the dead returns to them they would repent. But Abraham replies that if they don’t believe in Moses and the Prophets, neither would they believe should someone back from the dead bring them this message. Well, we’ve been given the privilege that the brothers of the Rich Man never received. Jesus has in fact come back from the dead to give us this message himself. Here at Mass we encounter him risen, not under the appearance of a poor man but under the even humbler appearances of bread and wine. But it’s truly Jesus. Today he gives us his Body and Blood and tells us, “Do this in memory of me.” This means not just that we celebrate the Mass in his memory but that we, receiving the message he gives us in his own body language, go and do the same, giving our body, our blood, our sweat, our tears, our food, our material resources to others. That is path of life, the path of watered roots and fruitfulness in season and out, the path of love that will bring us to experience eternal joy with him, with Lazarus, and with all the saints. As we prepare to receive him today, let us ask him for the grace to remain in a holy communion always with his self-giving charity so that we, recognizing him here, may recognize him always in the disguise of the poor and love him there as much as we do here!
The readings for today’s Mass were:
Cursed is the man who trusts in human beings,
who seeks his strength in flesh,
whose heart turns away from the LORD.
He is like a barren bush in the desert
that enjoys no change of season,
But stands in a lava waste,
a salt and empty earth.
Blessed is the man who trusts in the LORD,
whose hope is the LORD.
He is like a tree planted beside the waters
that stretches out its roots to the stream:
It fears not the heat when it comes,
its leaves stay green;
In the year of drought it shows no distress,
but still bears fruit.
More tortuous than all else is the human heart,
beyond remedy; who can understand it?
I, the LORD, alone probe the mind
and test the heart,
To reward everyone according to his ways,
according to the merit of his deeds.
PS 1:1-2, 3, 4 AND 6
Blessed the man who follows not
the counsel of the wicked
Nor walks in the way of sinners,
nor sits in the company of the insolent,
But delights in the law of the LORD
and meditates on his law day and night.
R. Blessed are they who hope in the Lord.
He is like a tree
planted near running water,
That yields its fruit in due season,
and whose leaves never fade.
Whatever he does, prospers.
R. Blessed are they who hope in the Lord.
Not so, the wicked, not so;
they are like chaff which the wind drives away.
For the LORD watches over the way of the just,
but the way of the wicked vanishes.
R. Blessed are they who hope in the Lord.
“There was a rich man who dressed in purple garments and fine linen
and dined sumptuously each day.
And lying at his door was a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores,
who would gladly have eaten his fill of the scraps
that fell from the rich man’s table.
Dogs even used to come and lick his sores.
When the poor man died,
he was carried away by angels to the bosom of Abraham.
The rich man also died and was buried,
and from the netherworld, where he was in torment,
he raised his eyes and saw Abraham far off
and Lazarus at his side.
And he cried out, ‘Father Abraham, have pity on me.
Send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue,
for I am suffering torment in these flames.’
Abraham replied, ‘My child,
remember that you received what was good during your lifetime
while Lazarus likewise received what was bad;
but now he is comforted here, whereas you are tormented.
Moreover, between us and you a great chasm is established
to prevent anyone from crossing
who might wish to go from our side to yours
or from your side to ours.’
He said, ‘Then I beg you, father, send him
to my father’s house,
for I have five brothers, so that he may warn them,
lest they too come to this place of torment.’
But Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the prophets.
Let them listen to them.’
He said, ‘Oh no, father Abraham,
but if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.’
Then Abraham said,
‘If they will not listen to Moses and the prophets,
neither will they be persuaded
if someone should rise from the dead.’“